Aleinu Le-Shabbe'aḥ

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ALEINU LE-SHABBE'AḤ (Heb. עָלֵינוּ לְשַׁבֵּחַ; "It is our duty to praise [the Lord of all things]"), prayer now recited at the conclusion of the statutory services. Originally it introduced the *Malkhuyyot section of the Rosh Ha-Shanah additional service in which the kingship of God is proclaimed and where it is recited with great solemnity. Its theological importance secured for it, from the 12th century at least, a special place in the daily order of service (Maḥzor Vitry, p. 75); first at the conclusion of the morning service and later at the end of the other two daily services as well (Kol Bo, no. 16). As with some other prayers, it was taken over from the New Year liturgy into the additional service of the Day of Atonement.

The style of Aleinu is that of the early piyyut, composed of short lines, each comprising about four words, with a marked rhythm and parallelism. It is one of the most sublime of Jewish prayers, written in exalted language.

It is referred to as Teki'ata de-Vei Rav ("The Shofar Service of *Rav") and it has therefore been ascribed to this third-century Babylonian teacher (tj rh 1:3, 57a; cf. Av. Zar. 1:2, 39c). But the Aleinu may be considerably older. According to one popular tradition, it was composed by Joshua (Arugat ha-Bosem, ed. by E.E. Urbach, 3 (1962), 468–71); according

to another, it was written by the Men of the Great Assembly during the period of the Second Temple (Manasseh Ben Israel, Vindiciae, vol. 4, p. 2). There are good reasons for placing it within that period, because there is no mention of the Temple restoration in the prayer while there is reference in it to the Temple practice of prostration. Prostration during Aleinu is still customary in the Ashkenazi rite in most communities on Rosh Ha-Shanah and on the Day of Atonement, while in the other services the congregants bow when reciting the words "we bend the knee…." The description of God as the "King of the kings of kings" may be due to Persian influence, since the Persians described their king as "the king of kings" (cf. Dan. 2:37). It has been suggested that the prayer has its origin in early *Merkabah mysticism; a version of Aleinu was recently found among hymns used by the early mystics (see bibliography).


The main theme of the prayer is the kingdom of God. In the first part, God is praised for having singled out the people of Israel from other nations, for Israel worships the One God while others worship idols. The second paragraph expresses the fervent hope for the coming of the kingdom of God, and the universal ideal of a united mankind which will recognize the only true God, and of "a world perfected under the kingship of the Almighty." The juxtaposition of the two paragraphs provides a coherent theology connecting the idea of a chosen people (Israel) with the challenge that such distinctiveness has for its purpose, religious union and the perfection of mankind under the kingdom of God.


In the Middle Ages the prayer was censored by Christians as containing an implied insult to Christianity. They claimed that the verse "for they prostrate themselves before vanity and emptiness and pray to a God that saveth not" was a reference to Jesus. Pesaḥ Peter, a 14th-century Bohemian apostate, spitefully alleged a connection between the numerical value of the Hebrew word וָרִיק (va-rik; "and emptiness") and יֵשׁוּ (Yeshu; the name of Christ). The elder *Buxtorf (16th century) and *Eisenmenger (17th century) and others repeated the charge; and Jewish apologists from Lippmann Muelhausen (15th century) to Manasseh Ben Israel and Moses Mendelssohn were at pains to refute it. However, the 13th-century Arugat ha-Bosem by Abraham b. Azriel does mention a tradition that the numerical value of לַהֶבֶל וָרִיק (la-hevel va-rik; "vanity and emptiness") equals יֵשׁוּ וּמֻחַמַּד (Yeshu u-Muhammad; Jesus and Muhammad). Some ecclesiastical censors also deleted the previous passage: "Who did not make our portion like theirs, nor our lot like that of all their multitude." Eisenmenger refers to the custom of spitting at the offending word which he interprets as an additional insult to Christianity. This was, no doubt, a popular gesture suggested by the double meaning of rik ("emptiness" and "spittle"). In view of this accusation, rabbis such as Isaiah Horowitz discouraged the indecorous practice. (The popular Yiddish phrase, er kummt tsum oysshpayen ("he comes at the spitting") came, therefore, to describe someone who arrived at a service as late as the concluding Aleinu.) The censors remained adamant even when it was pointed out that the offending phrase is found in Isaiah (30:7; 45:20), that the Aleinu prayer is probably pre-Christian, and that if Rav was the author, it was composed in a non-Christian country. The line had to be removed from Ashkenazi prayer books. In 1703 its recital was prohibited in Prussia. The edict, which provided for police enforcement, was renewed in 1716 and 1750. Even earlier, some communities omitted or changed the offending lines as an act of self-censorship (e.g., by replacing she-hem, "for they [prostrate themselves before vanity]," with she-hayu, "for they used to…"). The Sephardim – especially in Oriental countries – retained the full text and it has now been restored to some prayer books of the Ashkenazi rite as well.

The Blois Tragedy

*Ephraim of Bonn tells how the Jews of *Blois, martyred in 1171, went to their death chanting Aleinu to a soul-stirring melody which "at the outset… was subdued, but at the close was mighty." The messianic theme of the second paragraph would have made it especially significant for the Jew in the tragic moments of his history, and it takes its place with the Shema as a declaration of faith. Its introduction into the daily service may have been an act of defiance when Christian pressure was on the increase.

Reform Usage

In the Reform liturgy the prayer, with some modifications, has retained its importance and is called the "Adoration." The Ark is opened and the congregation bows as the words "we bow and prostrate ourselves" are recited.


The Aleinu of the *Musaf prayer of the Penitential Feasts is notable, in Ashkenazi tradition, for its music; the Sephardi and eastern communities sing it to one of their regular prayer modes. A musical peculiarity was claimed for the Ashkenazi tune as early as 1171, when it was sung by the martyrs of Blois (Neubauer-Stern, p. 68, 202). Its written tradition, however, dates from the 18th and 19th centuries. The Ashkenazi Aleinu belongs to the class of unchangeable *Mi-Sinai tunes. Thus, it cannot be traced back to a definite archetype, but only to a basic concept or musical idea which is executed differently in every performance.

The Aleinu tune consists of seven melodic sentences or "themes" (see Music Example), always produced in the same order. Four of them, nos. i, iv, v, and vi, are virtually invariable in outline; the others, especially the final themes iii and vii, are frequently changed. The Aleinu has several themes in common with other Mi-Sinai tunes: iv, v, vi, and vii3 recur, in the same order, in the Avot Benediction; ii, v, and vii2 are known from the *Kol Nidrei. Apart from mere ornamental elaboration and minor variants, three main patterns of melodic realization can be distinguished: (1) the predominant version (Examples ia and ib), known to both western and eastern Ashkenazi communities. This is well on the way to major tonality which gradually replaces the original mode (featuring a diminished seventh). Cantors from Russia often omitted some of the themes, except 1 and 5, replacing them by repetitions. This points to a western-Ashkenazi origin for the tune. (2) "Acculturated" versions (such as Example ic) came into being in the mid-19th century. They feature drastic reduction of coloraturas and decided major tonality. (3) A presently obsolete, expanded version was current in the 18th and early 19th century. It is excessively ornate, and may be regarded as a cantorial development of or a "fantasia" on the traditional tune. Many of its extended vocalizations and trumpet flourishes represent a musical illustration of certain mystical intentions (kavvanot) connected with the prayer. An old theory proposes a relationship between the tune of Aleinu and the Sanctus of the Roman Mass ix. Since the latter, however, is not dated earlier than the 14th century, no conclusions can be drawn from the slight similarity between the two tunes.

[Hanoch Avenary]


Baer, S., Seder, 131–2, 397–8; Siddur Oẓar ha-Tefillot (Ashkenazi rite, 1923), fol. 217 ff.; H. Brody and S. Wiener, Mivḥar ha-Shirah ha-Ivrit (1922), 9–10; Davidson, Oẓar, 3 (1930), 278, no. 676; Elbogen, Gottesdienst, 80; 143; Krauss, in: Festschrift… A. Freimann (1935), 127; G. Scholem, Jewish Gnosticism (19652), 105; Heinemann, in: jjs, 5 (1960), 246 ff.; idem, Ha-Tefillah bi-Tekufat ha-Tanna'im… (19662), 173 ff.; Liebreich, in: huca, 34 (1963), 162, 168; Abrahams, Companion, lxxxviff.; Baron, Social2, 4 (19572), 138, 307, n. 60; 7 (19582), 76, 89; Neusner, Babylonia, 2 (1966), 163 ff.; J.R. Marcus, Jew in the Medieval World (19603), 95, 116. music: Idelsohn, in: Zeitschrift fuer Musikwissenschaft, 8 (1926), 456 ff.; Avenary, in: I. Adler (ed.), Yuval (1968), 65–85; W. Apel, Gregorian Chant (1958), 417–20; H. Anglés, in: Journal of the International Folk Music Council, 16 (1964), 56.

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Aleinu Le-Shabbe'aḥ

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